The German general Helmuth von Moltke noted that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The writer’s equivalent of that adage would be, “no outline survives contact with the keyboard.” Still, that doesn’t mean that outlining is useless – just that it is very different task than most people get taught in high school. I taught composition for eleven years as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University and community colleges. Since then, I have written close to 1700 articles, as well as numerous blogs, stories, and essays. From this experience, I feel confident in saying that almost everything the average novice thinks they know about outlining is wrong. For instance:
- There is no point in insisting on using a formal outline, the way that most high school teachers and many text books insist. The fact that, when asked for one, most students construct a formal outline after the fact is enough to prove that, for most people, formal outlines don’t work.
- No single type of outlining works for everyone. Instead, you should try mindmapping, mental planning, or any other form of outlining you can think of until you fgreatind the ones that work best for you. All that counts is what works – an idea so radical that after I expressed it, I sometimes heard students draw deep breaths as though I had said something shocking. Apparently in their experience, writing techniques were not about benefiting them, but satisfying a teacher’s insistent demands
- The purposes of outlining are to prepare you to write, and to get you away from trying to outline, write, and edit at the same time. If you have ever plunged unprepared into writing, getting a few lines, then crossing them out, writing a little more, and crossing out a little more, over and over until your main emotion is frustration, you can appreciate what I mean that trying to do all these mental tasks at the same time mean that you are probably doing them all poorly. By dividing them out, you can probably be more efficient at all of them, and take less time to complete what you are writing.
- No firm rules exist, but, based on my experience and that of other writers, the physical act of writing should occupy less than a quarter of your time. About half your time should go into researching and outlining, and the remaining quarter into editing. These are only approximations, of course, and will vary widely between people, but many novices spend as much as three-quarters of their time trying to write (but really combining all three functions)
- Spending too much time outlining is often counter-productive. Although some people thrive on formal outlines, others go into so much detail that, by the time they go to write, they have lost all interest in the topic. Instead of preparing them to write, outlining saps the energy that should go into writing
- Outlining is over (at least until the next draft) when you have a clear idea of how the piece you were writing was organized. This definition has at least three advantages: it keeps you fresh, gives you confidence, and helps you to think more clearly about your subject.
- Outlining is a starting point, not necessarily a final structure. Something about writing — especially with a pen, but also with a keyboard – stimulates the human mind. Perhaps this stimulation is a matter of focus, but I have never heard it adequately explained. Personally, it is the nearest I have come to a supernatural experience, and all I really know is that it works. But for whatever reason writing stimulates other ideas, and what seemed like a thorough outline shortly after completion is likely to seem incomplete or even misleading as you write. Instead of clinging to the outline, accept this stimulation – after all, it’s a sign that writing is going well. You may choose to scribble down the ideas that come when you are writing and deal with them later, or try to incorporate them as you work, but the one thing you should never do is ignore the ideas that coming to writing. If you do, you are probably throwing away your best ideas.
- After each draft, spend some time outlining, evaluating your original structure as well as the ideas that came to you as you writing. Look especially at the order and importance of your ideas. What seemed to work while you were originally outlining may not have worked as well as you expected when you came to write.
- Outlining after a draft is as much about throwing out ideas as adding them. Just because you spent time expressing an idea does not mean that you should keep it. In fact, many writers believe that an idea or its expression pleases you too much, it should be deleted automatically. I wouldn’t make that an inevitable practice, but it’s worth considering, if only to improve your thoughts by challenging them.
Your methods of outlining may change as you gain more understanding of yours work habits, and as you increase your experience of writing. For instance, years ago, I needed to outline in some detail to write three thousand words. Now, I do most of my planning in my head, and only need to jot down a few key words unless I am writing at much longer length. However, I am not trying to suggest that novices imitate me. That is one thing that many people who give advice about writing fail to notice – often, what they are saying is how they do things, not anything with any claim to applying to everyone. The point is, you can make outlining work for you, if only you disregard many of the certainties you were taught and discover what works for you.